06 February 2023

Museum Monday 2023/6

 


detail of Joan Brown's Colony Hotel Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica, currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of the special Joan Brown exhibit, running through 12 March

05 February 2023

Gershwin & Kahane at the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony last Thursday gave us the first night of a two-night stand featuring Conrad Tao as soloist in the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F as well as Gabriel Kahane's emergency shelter intake form, an exploration of homelessness & inequality in America, so as a fanboy of both Tao & Kahane I went to Davies Hall for the first time since the pre-pandemic years.

Tao, a composer as well as pianist, threw himself into the Gershwin, which he obviously knows inside out (he played mostly with his eyes shut). The piece is not as familiar as Rhapsody in Blue but is in the same vein, with that piquant Gershwin combination of wistful romance & ultimately melancholy exuberance, all caught breathtakingly in this performance. I thought we were going to get an encore, but we did not (though I heard later that Tao played & sang Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life on Friday, which sadly we of the large & enthusiastic Thursday crowd were not given).

After the intermission came the Kahane piece. He is best known as a songwriter but the nearly hour-long emergency shelter intake form showed how well he can sustain a longer work, involving multiple forces (soloists & chorus as well as orchestra). The piece provides thoughtful, evocative, & sometimes comic answers to the bureaucratic boilerplate questions of the titular form ("Where did you stay last night?" "Have you received any income in the past thirty days?" "Have you ever been evicted?"). The answers are provided not only by a soloist (the elegant mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran) but by a Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics (Holcombe Waller, Kristen Toedtman, & Kahane himself), which chimes in with financial/political background, which is not as dry as it sounds; Kahane's text is often pointed, & some of these sections, like the "Can you hear the bull market roar?" refrain of Section XI, "A Brief History of the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis" are almost distressingly catchy, capturing well the heady appeal of boom times (& providing a thematic link to the Jazz Age Gershwin).

The soloists are amplified but the chorus (made up in these performances of the Skywatchers Ensemble & the Community Music Center Singers, led by Martha Rodríguez-Salazar), which enters at the end, is not; conductor Edwin Outwater kept all these forces balanced (something that doesn't always happen in Davies Hall when amplification is involved) & pulsing forward. The music ranges widely in mood; the opening lines ("What brings you here? / What happened? / Where did you sleep last night?"), smoothly & yearningly sung by Moran, might almost signal a work about an intimate romance. The instrumentation includes not only the usual symphonic suspects but also guitar, accordion, tin cans, & more, & Kahane's music is as adept at the poetic, the comic, & the heart-breaking as his words. Underlying it all is a generous impulse to resist the demonization of "the homeless", & there's always the thrill of experiencing a major new work by an artist I admire so much. So why did this piece leave me feeling dissatisfied?

The first pronouncement of the Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics is "We believe that the lifeblood of art is – How shall we put it? / Ambiguity", but that's exactly what I felt was missing. As I said, I admire the impulse to resist demonizing "the homeless", but there's an opposite trap which is not avoided here, & that's to portray them purely as victims – I mean in the sense of the perfect or ideal, the blameless, victim. Drugs, mental illness, really stupid life choices, aggression towards others are very fleetingly touched on in the work, & I'm not blaming, judging, or dismissing people who suffer from any of these things, but by eliding them from the world drawn here, we end up with a group of what the Victorians would have called "the deserving poor", the portrayal of whom verges at times on sentimentality – & that's not necessarily a bad thing; sentimentality is just heightening our pity towards those who deserve pity, & from pity can come action.

But it's also true that this sort of categorical compassion can lead to the overly easy satire of other groups, such as the NIMBY types portrayed in Section VI, "Certainly We Can All Agree"; there were appreciative chuckles from the audience at Davies Hall, but I seriously doubt any of them would be willing to live next to a halfway house, let alone a full-on encampment of the unhoused. & it's the NIMBY population, among others, you need to persuade in order for effective policies to gain traction, & lightly mocking & dismissing their concerns about having "our windows barred" is not going to win them over.

& that's why, I think, it matters that the more problematic, troublesome examples of the unhoused among us are not present in this particular work, which admittedly is already taking on several vast & intractable topics. But how can the audience connect what it just felt in the concert hall with what it experiences as soon as it leaves the hall, & how can political action be sustained in the face of this disparity?

The audience was very enthusiastic after Thursday's performance, but when we leave Davies & head to the Civic Center BART station or a parking garage, how are we going to make & sustain the connection between the moving stories of the people we have just heard about & the people we're crossing the street to avoid? (Any downtown SF arts administrator who claims not to be concerned about how the homeless population affects attendance at their expensive entertainments is, I will politely suggest, lying.) The hearts opened up by this work are going to slam right back shut in the face of the familiar & daily gantlet of hostile threats, aggressive panhandling, or even just offensive smells & noises. These too are part of the total situation.

I've been reading a lot of Dorothy Day lately, & one theme that emerged for me is that she didn't help people because they deserved it or because it made her feel virtuous to do so or anything like that; many of the people she helped were, & she knew this perfectly well & acknowledged it, in every sense hopeless: difficult, abrasive, dishonest, even dangerous, & certainly ungrateful. She persevered because of an overwhelming religious conviction – these people are part of the body of Christ, & she is here to serve that body – & whether you share that conviction, or some variant of it, or are just concerned about social stability or urban livability, you will need to make the leap to providing help to people who don't, in many eyes, "deserve" help. Unless you acknowledge that – that people can be undeserving, incorrigible, repulsive, but still deserving of generous assistance – you're not going to sustain the political will necessary to provide such help, or to persuade people to join you in working for it.

I say all this with great respect not only for what Kahane has achieved here, but the generous impulse underlying it: we live in a profoundly sick, mean-spirited country with twisted priorities, & making individuals out of its victims is valuable. But sustained action, action acceptable to a working majority of any country, can't shy away from the less touching aspects of this problem (this "problem"! this population, these people, these individuals).

I would encourage anyone interested in this piece to buy a copy of the original recording & explore the work for themselves.

UPDATE: For another perspective, here is Lisa Hirsch's review in the San Francisco Chronicle as well as her blog entry.

03 February 2023

30 January 2023

an addition to the February calendar

 Somehow I missed this while preparing my February calendar, but it sounds fascinating:

Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble presents & performs the world premiere of BABA: The Life and Death of Stana, a new opera the ensemble commissioned from Slovenian composer Karmina Šilec "inspired by real and imagined stories of Balkan sworn virgins (women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy). The tradition of sworn virgins is rooted in a centuries-old social code of law present in remote rural regions of Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia. Born as women, life circumstances—including the loss of male relatives in blood feuds or a desire to escape an oppressive arranged marriage—led these individuals to become men to gain the honors, rights, privileges, and freedoms of community patriarchs. The motives for this gender transformation were traditionally social responsibility and family honor, as opposed to sexual preference or feelings of being male by nature."

Performances are 23 - 26 February at Z Space in San Francisco; go here for more information & tickets.

Museum Monday 2023/5

 


detail of an alabaster Saint John the Baptist from sixteenth-century Spain, now in the Art Institute of Chicago

28 January 2023

Another Opening, Another Show: February 2023

The usual caveats apply about checking current masking/vaccination requirements & then checking those against your own comfort level. This past month there was a concert postponement due not to illness but water damage from our recent storms; it's almost refreshing to have a different type of disaster strike.

Theatrical

The Oakland Theater Project presents the world premiere of Exodus to Eden, written & directed by Michael Socrates Moran, a surrealist music-studded epic about travelers on "a journey eastward, confronting environmental devastation, lost hopes, and terrifying dreamscapes that eventually collide with their waking life" & that runs 3 - 26 February.

TheatreFIRST presents Tom Swift's A Marriage, directed by Richard A Mosqueda, examining a 40-year relationship between two men, & that runs from 3 to 19 February.

Theater Rhinoceros presents a free staged reading of Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson) by Rachel Lynett, directed by Kimberly Ridgeway, on 7 February; the play is a about a future all-black state that realizes it needs to define "blackness".

ACT presents The Headlands by Christopher Chen, directed by Pam MacKinnon, about a true crime fan who ends up investigating the mysteries of his own life, & that runs 9 February to 5 March at the Toni Rembe Theater (& at some point I'll stop noting that it's the Theater formerly known as The Geary).

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Little Women: The Musical (book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, music by Jason Howland) on 16 - 17 February.

On 16 - 18 February, Cutting Ball Theater along with the Poltergeist Theatre Project present Gaslit by Chris Steele & Sean Owens, a "Trans Drag Parody" one-person version of the old stage & cinema chestnut.

Cambodian Rock Band, written by Lauren Yee & directed by Chay Yew, is a rock musical (featuring songs by Dengue Fever) about a survivor of the Khmer Rouge returning to Cambodia after 30 years, where his daughter is preparing to prosecute a war criminal; & that comes to Berkeley Rep from 25 February through 2 April.

The shipboard antics of Cole Porter's Anything Goes (with a revised book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman, directed by Nick Ishimaru) come to 42nd Street Moon's Gateway Theater from 23 February to 12 March.

Theater Rhinoceros presents Ken Urban's A Guide for the Homesick, directed by Alan S Quismorio, about a young aid worker in Amsterdam returning from a year in East Africa & meeting up with a fellow American, & that runs 23 February to 19 March.

Berkeley Playhouse presents the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Fun Home (book & lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel), directed by William Thomas Hodgson (assistant directed by Sam Jackson, music directed by Michael Patrick Wiles), from 24 February to 2 April.

Talking

Cal Performances presents This American Life's Ira Glass at Zellerbach Hall on 11 February.

Cal Performances presents A Conversation with Rita Moreno on 26 February at Zellerbach Hall.

Operatic

Opera Parallèle presents Everest at Z Space on 3 - 5 & 8 - 12 February; the opera, with text by Gene Scheer & music by Joby Talbot, uses graphic-novel-style illustrations & video to create an immersive experience of a disastrous 1996 expedition to the famous mountain; Nicole Paiement conducts & the cast includes Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Nathan Granner (tenor), Kevin Burdette (bass), Hadleigh Adams (baritone), Matt Boehler (bass), Charlotte Fanvu (treble), Shawnette Sulker (soprano), Whitney Steele (mezzo-soprano), & Kevin Gino (tenor) – though please note that the singers are all pre-recorded & will not be singing the performances live – & the design team includes Brian Staufenbiel (director & creator), Mark Simmons (Illustrator), David Murakami (Projection Designer & Director of Photography), Jacquelyn Scott (Scenic Designer), & Miles Lassi (Sound Engineer).

Vocalists

Soprano Sarah Cambidge & tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven, accompanied by pianist Peter Grünberg, will perform a selection of love songs & duets for Lieder Alive! at the Noe Valley Ministry on 12 February.

Orchestral

Edwin Outwater conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (with soloist Conrad Tao) & Gabriel Kahane's emergency shelter intake form (with mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran & other vocalists, including Kahane himself), & that's on 2 - 3 February.

Conductor Earl Lee, joined by soprano Sumi Jo, helps the San Francisco Symphony celebrate the lunar Year of the Rabbit on 5 February, with works by An-lun Huang, Huang Tzu, Geung-Su Lim, Huang Ruo, Tyzen Hsiao, Du-nam Cho, Hong-ryeol Lee, & Zhou Tian.

Philharmonia Baroque, led by Richard Egarr, will perform both of the Saint-Saëns cello concertos (with Steven Isserlis as soloist) along with the Brahms 2 on 9 February at Herbst Theater, 10 February at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, & 11 - 12 February at First Church in Berkeley. Isserlis will also be conducting a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on 8 February.

Music Director David Milnes will lead the UC-Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in Strauss's Don Juan & Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra on 10 - 11 February in Hertz Hall.

Edwin Outwater will lead the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra in a world premiere from Sumi Tonooka, Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano soloist Taylor See), & the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra on 11 February.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Jan Václav Voříšek's Symphony in D Major (an SFS premiere) & the Dvořák 8 on 9, 10, & 12 February.

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen is leading several programs at the San Francisco Symphony this month: on 17 - 19 February, there's Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, the Bartók Piano Concerto 2 (with soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard), & selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet; on 20 February, there's the Grieg Piano Concerto (with Lang Lang as soloist) & the Sibelius 5; & on 23, 25, & 26 February, there's the world premiere of SFS Commission No Such Spring by Samuel Adams & the Bruckner 6.

On 24 February at the Paramount Theater, Vinay Parameswaran leads the Oakland Symphony in Notes from California, which includes Gabriella Smith's Tumblebird Contrails, Debussy's En blanc et noir (orchestrated by Robin Holloway), Reena Esmail's History of Red (with soprano soloist Kathryn Mueller), & Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements.

Chamber Music

On 3 February, Old First Concerts presents the Greek Chamber Music Project (vocalist Katerina Clambaneva, flutist Ellie Falaris Ganelin, cellist Lewis Patzner, & pianist Elektra Schmidt) in Uproot: Music from Asia Minor, memorializing the ethnic cleansing known as the 1923 Population Exchange.

Cal Performances presents cellist David Finckel & pianist Wu Han in Hertz Hall on 5 February, when they will play works by Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Pierre Jalbert (a California premiere), & Shostakovich.

Violinist Alexander Barantschik, cellist Peter Wyrick, & pianist Anton Nel of the San Francisco Symphony will be at the Gunn Theater at the Legion of Honor on 5 February to perform chamber works by Beethoven, Schubert, &  Saint-Saëns.

The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, led by Music Director & violist Ben Simon, will present a Mozart Birthday Celebration, featuring "a bassoon duo, a flute quartet, and his incredible clarinet quintet" on 6 February at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley (yes, Mozart's actual birthday is 27 January, but he's surely deserving of an extended celebration).

San Francisco Performances, in association with the OMNI Foundation for the Performing Arts, presents guitarist Sean Shibe & the Van Kuijk Quartet at Herbst Theater on 10 February, where they will perform pieces by Mendelssohn, Boccherini, Thomas Adès, Manuel de Falla, Poulenc, & Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Chamber Music San Francisco presents the Aris Quartet in a program of Mozart, Mendelsson, & Grieg at Herbst Theater on 11 February.

San Francisco Performances continues its Saturday morning lecture/performance series, Music as a Mirror of Our World: Chamber Music at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, with musicologist Robert Greenberg & the Alexander String Quartet, on 18 February at Herbst Theater, this time centering on Hungary & the music of Béla Bartók & Zoltán Kodály.

San Francisco Performances presents its annual PIVOT festival at Herbst Theater from 21 to 23 February; this year the concerts all feature the excellent Catalyst Quartet (I heard them last season) in three different programs featuring works by women or composers of color that should be standard repertory but aren't yet; each concert features a string quartet by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St Georges as well as works by: (on February 21) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Miguel Bernal-Jimenez, Rebecca Clarke, & Amy Beach; (on February 22) Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Teresa Carreño, & Ethel Smyth; (on February 23) Germaine Tailleferre, Antonio Carlos Gomes, & Fanny Mendelssohn.

On 24 February at Old First Concerts, the Bardin-Niskala Duo (cellist An-Lin Bardin & pianist Naomi Niskala) perform Songs Reimagined, a program of west coast premieres of music inspired by "a childhood song or folk song from the composer’s heritage", including commissioned works by Yiheng Yvonne Wu, Juantio Becenti, Miguel del Aguila, Michael-Thomas Foumai, & Jean “Rudy” Perrault, as well as pieces by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee, William Grant Still, & Reena Esmail.

Instrumentalists

San Francisco Performances presents violinist Midori in two solo recitals, both featuring Bach & modern works: on 2 February she plays Bach's Sonata #2 for Solo Violin in A Minor, BWV 1003, his Sonata #3 for Solo Violin in C Major, BWV 1005, his Violin Partita #2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, along with Thierry Escaich's Nun Komm & Annie Gosfield's Long Waves and Random Pulses (acoustic version); then on 5 February she plays Bach's Sonata #1 for Solo Violin in G Minor, BWV 1001, his Violin Partita #1 in B Minor, BWV 1002, & his Violin Partita #3 in E Major, BWV 1006, along with Jessie Montgomery's Rhapsody #1 & John Zorn's Passagen; both concerts are at Herbst Theater.

The taiko drummers of Kodo visit Cal Performances & Zellerbach Hall on 4 - 5 February with Tsuzumi: One Earth Tour, looking back over the ensemble's 40-year history &, of course, forward with some new compositions.

On 5 February Old First Concerts presents pianist Gabriela Calderón Cornejo in a performance of neglected music by mid-twentieth century Latin American women, including Carmen Barradas, Nelly Mele Lara, Maruja Hinestroa, Aurora Román Casares, & María Mendoza de Baratta.

Cal Performances presents pianist Jeremy Denk on 12 February at Hertz Hall, playing works by Bach, Schubert, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, “Blind Tom” Wiggins, Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin, Frederic Rzewski, & Beethoven.

Flutist Clare Chase, joined by as-yet unnamed members of the San Francisco Symphony, will perform two works by Marcos Balter, Alone & Pan, on 24 February as part of the Symphony's SoundBox series (though with a reasonable start time of 7:30, rather than the usual series absurdity of 9:00).

Chamber Music San Francisco presents pianist Olga Kern in an all-Rachmaninov program at Herbst Theater on 25 February.

Cal Performances presents violinist Alexi Kenney performing music by Bach, Reena Esmail, Paul Wiancko, Du Yun, Nicola Matteis, Matthew Burtner, Giuseppe Colombi, Samuel Adams, & California premieres from Angélica Negrón & Salina Fisher at Hertz Hall on 26 February.

Old First Concerts presents pianist Daniela Mineva in Transfigured Voices, a program featuring pieces by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Galina Ustvolskaya, & Sofia Gubaidulina, on 26 February.

Early / Baroque Music

Jeffrey Thomas leads the American Bach Soloists is a program titled Bravura Bach, featuring works not only by Bach but also Telemann & Vivaldi, on 3 February at Saint Stephen's in Belvedere, 4 February at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley, 5 February at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, & 6 February at Davis Community Church in Davis.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the Historical Performance Concerto Winners' Concert on 12 February, featuring John Garth's Concerto for Violoncello in D Major, Opus 1, #1 (with Kyle Stachnik on baroque cello), Bach's Concerto for Harpsichord in D Minor, BWV 1052 (with Yunyi Ji on harpsichord), Boismortier's Concerto for Violoncello in D Major, Opus 26, #6 (with Octavio Mujica on baroque cello), Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor, RV 523 (with Annemarie Schubert & Eliana Estrada on baroque violin), & Vivaldi's Concerto for Violoncello in D Minor, RV 407 (with Hasan Abualhaj on baroque cello).

Philharmonia Baroque has one of its informal PBO Sessions concerts on 16 February at the ODC Theater; this one will feature Nola Richardson (soprano), Davóne Tines (bass-baritone & PBO Creative Partner), David Belkovski (keyboard), Kevin Payne (theorbo), & William Skeen (cello), alternating early & contemporary works, including pieces by Purcell, Katherine Balch, Geminiani, keyboardist Belkovski, Monteverdi, Tyshawn Sorey, & an open rehearsal piece to be announced.

Voices of Music gives us Musica Transalpina: Chamber music from Italy and England, featuring works by Uccellini, Marini, Corelli, Matteis, Purcell. & Handel, on 17 February at First Congregational in Palo Alto, 18 February at First Congregational in Berkeley, & 19 February at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

San Francisco Renaissance Voices will perform works by Monteverdi, Byrd, Tallis, Allegri, & Palestrina at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in San Francisco on 18 February.

The Handel Opera Project presents his great oratorio Jephtha on 26 February at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley. conducted by William G Ludtke & featuring Jonathan Smucker (Jephtha),  Angela Jarosz (Iphis), Reuben Zellman (Hamor), Kathleen Miller (Storge), Bradley Kynard (Zebul), & Jennifer Mitchell (Angel).

Modern / Contemporary Music

Cal Performances presents the Eco Ensemble, led by David Milnes, in new works by Edmund Campion (the contemporary composer, not the Elizabethan martyr), Toshio Hosokawa (this work & the Campion are both American premieres), Cindy Cox, Amadeus Julian Regucera, & Ken Ueno, & you can hear them 4 February at Hertz Hall.

At the Center for New Music on 11 February, Bay Area members of NACUSA (National Association of Composers/USA) will present Music as Winter Fades: instrumental, vocal, & electroacoustic chamber music by Douglas Ovens, Monica Chew, Amy Stephens, Shelli Nan, Mary Fineman, Allan Crossman, John Bilotta, & Karl Schmidt.

Nicole Paiement leads the San Francisco Conservatory of Music New Music Ensemble on 15 February in a program including works by Nick Benavides, Sarah Wald, Yangfan Xu, & Jason Hainsworth.

The California College for the Arts Wattis Institute presents Raven Chacon’s American Ledger #1, conducted by Andy Meyerson, along with an audio visual accompaniment by Music Research Strategies titled Deep Phonology: Technique and Sound Become Visual and Transformative, at The Lab on 16th Street in San Francisco on 25 February.

Jazz & Gospel

Trumpeter & composer Ambrose Akinmusire will be a Resident Artistic Director at the SF Jazz Center this month: on 3 February, his usual quartet (Akinmusire on trumpet, Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, & Timothy Angulo on drums) will be joined by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman; on 4 February he will appear as one of the Martin Lawrence Trio, along with Mike Aaberg on keyboards & Thomas Pridgen on drums; on 5 February he will play in a duo with bassist Ron Carter; & on 9 February he will give a solo concert at Grace Cathedral.

The Blind Boys of Alabama will appear at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on 8 February.

Trumpeter/vocalist/proponent of the "hot jazz" style Bria Skonberg will play the SF Jazz Center from 9 to 12 February.

The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir will perform its 8th Annual Black History Month Celebration at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on 12 February.

The Tord Gustavsen Trio (Gustavsen on piano, Steinar Raknes on bass, & Jarle Vepestad on drums) visits the SF Jazz Center on 22 February.

Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington will be a Resident Artistic Director at the SF Jazz Center this month: on 23 February she introduces her new band, the Art of Living Quintet (Milena Casado Fauquet on trumpet & flugelhorn, Morgan Guerin on saxophone & various instruments, Devon Gates on bass, & Kris Davis on piano); on 24 February, with a group including Michael Mayo on vocals, Etienne Charles on trumpet, Matthew Stevens on guitar, Kris Davis on piano, & Linda May Han Oh on bass, Carrington will perform from New Standards, her recent compilation of jazz tunes by women, including Carla Bley, Cassandra Wilson, Marilyn Crispell, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Eliane Elias, Jaime Branch, Luciana Souza, Hiromi, Emily Remler, Anat Cohen, & others; & on 25 - 26 February she will present Seen / Unseen, a multi-media work exploring the lives of Black women, with live video accompaniment by artist Mickalene Thomas & movement from dancer Babatunji Johnson, along with music led by composer Edmar Colon & performed by the Del Sol Quartet, Etienne Charles on trumpet. Elena Pinderhughes on flute, Simon Moullier on vibraphone, Eric Revis on bass, Orrin Evans on piano, Val Jeanty on electronics, & artists TBD from the San Francisco Conservatory Winds Ensemble.

Dance

Volti & ODC Dance revive Path of Miracles, with music by Joby Talbot & choreography by KT Nelson, from 10 to 12 February at Grace Cathedral. I saw this when it was first presented & I will confess to being less enthralled with it than most other people I spoke to. The work is a meditation, using many different texts, many of them medieval, in a variety of rare languages. rooted in the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Compostello, Spain. I had heard a portion of it at a Volti concert, really loved the piece, & was very excited at the prospect of a full performance. But no texts were projected or provided at the Cathedral, reducing the words to a vaguely spiritual-sounding wash of voices. I was told later, by someone involved, that that was a deliberate choice – OK, that's the artists' decision, but as someone who enters things through words & their meanings, I found it disappointing. The other problem, no surprise, was the audience. Lots of chatter, as usual inane & irrelevant; for most of the performance, we could move throughout the Cathedral, but it's annoying to do that not to experience the work in a new perspective but to avoid another idiotic conversation. I remember one between a couple, clearly Roman Catholic, who could not figure out the function of one of the side chapels – it stuck in my head because it seemed so bizarre to me that a Catholic couldn't figure out the set-up of an Episcopalian Cathedral. Then at the end of the piece we're all supposed to sit in one spot, as in a regular concert, & of course I was near a woman who kept talking about the light fixtures in the church. Some of this is my usual bad luck with audiences. Sometimes I think they're a necessary evil, but most of the time I think they're not necessary. Anyway, as I said, most people were thrilled by the evening so by all means check it out yourself, & it sold out last time so get tickets early if you are so inclined.

Cal Performances presents the divine Mark Morris Dance Group in the Bay Area premiere of The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach, with musical arrangements by Ethan Iverson & Marcy Harriell as lead singer, & that's at Zellerbach Hall on 17 - 19 February.

The San Francisco Ballet presents Giselle (music mostly by Adolphe Adam, choreography mostly by Helgi Tomasson) from 24 February to 5 March.

The World Ballet Series presents Cinderella (music by Prokofiev, choreography by Marina Kessler) at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater on 24 February.

Step Afrika! comes to Cal Performances & Zellerbach Hall on 25 February.

Smuin Ballet presents a Choreography Showcase, in which their dancers create their own new works, at the Smuin Center for Dance, from 22 to 26 February.

Visual Arts

Sargent & Spain, which (this is probably obvious) explores the influence of Spain on John Singer Sargent, opens at the Legion of Honor on 11 February & runs through 14 May.

Cinematic

James Baldwin Abroad, three short films about the great American writer, will screen at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on 3 - 5 February.

Here are the series starting at the Pacific Film Archive this month: Documentary Voices, "an international selection of inventive documentary and nonfiction films, past and present" opens 1 February & runs through 12 April; Tales of Cinema: Hong Sangsoo, seven films by the Korean filmmaker, opens 3 February & runs through the 18th; & filmmaker Pratibha Parmar will appear in person to present A Place of Rage (featuring conversations with Angela Davis, Alice Walker, June Jordan, & Trinh T Minh-ha) as well as two of her short films Sari Red & Khush, on 9 February, & then again on 23 February with My Name Is Andrea, her new film about writer & activist Andrea Dworkin.

The Jewish Film Institute's 10th annual Winterfest will be held at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco on 25 - 26 February.

16 January 2023

Dido Reimagined: Upshaw & the Brentano String Quartet at SF Performances

Last Thursday, on an evening that fortunately for me was a pause between the fierce storms pounding California, I went to Herbst Theater to hear Dawn Upshaw & the Brentano String Quartet in a beautifully chosen (& beautifully played) program titled Dido Reimagined. The first half featured early modern British composers (Henry Purcell, Matthew Locke, John Dowland, Thomas Tomkins, William Byrd, Robert Johnson); vocal numbers alternated with instrumental, culminating in Purcell's great lament from Dido & Aeneas, When I Am Laid in Earth. The second half was a new monodrama composed for Upshaw & the Brentanos, Dido Reimagined: A Response to Purcell's "Lament", with music by Melinda Wagner setting a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. San Francisco Performances was the presenter.

Most of the numbers in the first half were relatively brief. After the first one or two, about a third of the audience started applauding after each piece. It's nice that people want to show appreciation but I wasn't wild about this – to me it interrupted the flow & mood of the performance. At least there wasn't that weird tension you sometimes get in concerts between people who insist on applauding after movements & those who support the old "no applause between movement" rules (personally, I like the rule, as I find the applause often, as I said, disrupts the flow & mood, & insisting on applauding seems like audience members imposing their own views in a "look at ME!" way on people who perhaps are there for other reasons – I'm not going to get too worked up about it, though; there are plenty of other things to be annoyed about).

The intricate melancholy knots of this intimate music were (with the usual irony of art born out of sorrow) a joy to hear under the Brentanos (Serena Canin & Mark Steinberg on violin, Misha Amory on viola, & Nina Lee on cello). I wish more string quartets would explore this repertory. Upshaw entered with the quartet (the first number was the song Oh Let Me Weep from Purcell's The Fairy Queen) & instead of exiting & re-entering for the songs she stayed on stage with them throughout, very presently listening, a nice bit of staging that helped create an unbroken & collaborative atmosphere. Unfortunately, contrary to their usual practice, SF Performances did not provide the words to any of the vocal numbers, & though some of them (Dido's Lament, obviously) are familiar, others are less so, & it was sometimes difficult to follow the poetry. This is not a comment on Upshaw's excellent articulation, it's just a reality of the human voice – the higher you go, the more difficult it is to convey words clearly.

Upshaw, of course, is a beloved long-time star among singers, & the qualities for which she is justly beloved – her intelligence, her adventurousness, her commitment to words & music, her generosity in communication – were all present. It's also true that her voice, particularly at the beginning of the evening, was audibly frayed, though less so as the evening wore on (perhaps as she got warmer & more into it?). In the second half, the new piece written for her, she sounded stronger. I have been to some late-life concerts from other beloved artists that were difficult & depressing to listen to, so great was the decline from their athletic prime – I did not feel that here. If anything, for me the signs of aging in her voice resonated with the program's themes of loss & mortality & contributed to the theatrical & thematic power of the performance.

The lack of a printed text was a definite disadvantage to the new piece, which is intended as a re-vision of Dido's story, turning away from the narrative of a woman killing herself over a man's lost love towards one of a woman healing herself. The first lines are "I am not dead / I did not die" & Wagner sets them so that I - I - I is repeated several times over flickering figures – so you get a sense of a woman both asserting her individuality & trying to pull it together. There is a sense of reconciliation with the self at the end (though I couldn't quite make out if the last line was "she [Dido] is live" or "she is loved". In between – well, as I said, it was difficult to follow without the words. I did not get a significant sense of development in words or in the music, however consistently attractive it was. It seems Dido is on a long post-break-up voyage; there are passing references to such non-classical items as the Port Authority & lobster ships, so we seem to be somewhere off the Northeast coast of the United States. There is a long passage referencing the myth of Callisto, transformed into a bear & then into the constellation Ursa Major, which led to a reference to Saint Ursula & her 10,000 Virgins. It was difficult not to feel that the roughly 40-minute piece was a bit meandering.

For a work that takes a determinedly contemporary view of Dido, there is a weird absence of any consideration of her as a political or executive figure: while she's out meditating on love & loss as an act of empowerment & self-healing, just who is ruling Carthage? What force is rushing into that power vacuum? In Dido's case, the personal is definitely political, but this re-imagining of Dido simply removes the political dimension, creating in place of the powerful Queen of Carthage what seems like a modern middle-class woman going through a bad break-up, which, as we all know, is rough, but we also know that, given the polemical point here, she's going to – she has to – come through her troubles with renewed strength. What exactly is at stake?

You can't really rewrite Dido as "not a victim" unless you first reduce her, in her earlier manifestations, to simply a victim, & that I think is not how the character has ever come across. If I'm remembering the Aeneid correctly, Dido has the last word, or rather, the last refusal to speak: when the Roman hero goes to the Underworld, she walks past & disdains to acknowledge him – to use a violent & apt phrase, she cuts him. & of course in Purcell's opera she memorably has the last words, with the emphatic instruction remember me. I doubt anyone walks out of that opera thinking that Aeneas is a great guy & Dido a weakling; the emotional affect is too complex. Berlioz's Dido goes out in a blaze of magnificence. These are all intensely memorable, deeply moving moments. Yes, we go in knowing how the story ends, but each telling reaches that end in a different & revealing way.

To make an obvious point: wandering around working on self-healing lacks the dramatic punch of setting yourself on fire. The former is no doubt a better way to live life, & the impulse to rewrite traditional narratives to examine their assumptions about power is a socially useful & generous one, but you end up with a kind of eighteenth-century moderation & rationality that doesn't really explore the deeper stranger recesses of the psyche, & can seem emotionally out of step with our cataclysmic times.